In 1999, bowing to political pressure from Staten Island, Rudolph Giuliani announced that he would be closing Fresh Kills landfill and that the city would ship its trash to South Carolina. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg, then at his lowest popularity levels, courted votes on Staten Island by proposing a park at Fresh Kills. The Municipal Arts Society had been exploring post-landfill uses for the site, and sponsored a contest with the City Planning department for landscape architects. In September 2003, Mayor Bloomberg announced Field Operations the winner, with Staten Island borough president James Molinaro calling the plan “the final nail in the heart of Dracula,” meaning the landfill was finally closed for good. The closing caught the engineers of the mound by surprise; the tallest mound had suddenly stopped at a 220-foot plateau. You don’t want plateaus on landfills; to channel rainwater in a controlled fashion, the mound would have to be regraded. The landfill was temporarily reopened to accommodate material from the World Trade Center, just as a design competition for the park had begun. (Some material with human remains in it was mixed in with other debris, so that relatives of 9/11 victims have sued the city unsuccessfully to sort through all the rubble again, and a 9/11 memorial is part of the park plan.) Today, if you go on one of the tours of the site given by the Parks Department, you can see trucks finishing off the East Mound with so-called “clean-fill” from construction sites and channel dredging as well as soil—topping it off like a cup of coffee in a diner. Even closed, the landfill needs feeding.
The first time Corner saw the view from the East Mound was summer 2001, when he toured the site in a van with other landscape architects competing for the commission. Every contestant ended up emphasizing so-called green ideas like recycling, native planting, and the use of sustainable-energy sources. Hargraves Associates featured Olmsted-sounding names like “The Meadows” and “The Preserve”; John M. Caslan and Partners proposed “ecospheres,” or giant domes that housed various American climates; and Rios’s plan featured an intrapark amphibious shuttle bus. But none of the competitors addressed the trash hills as explicitly as Corner. Linda Pollak, reviewing the competition in Praxis in 2002, noted the enormous opportunity for the “conceptual reengineering of these constructed mountains.” “Yet for the most part,” she noted, “these competition entries maintain a silence around their vast presence.”
Corner, in contrast, recognized that these Wall-E-esque trash heaps were the most significant feature of the land. “I was just blown away by the scope and beauty of the place,” he recalls. Embracing the hills was as counterintuitive to most city-park design as it was consistent with Corner’s philosophy of landscape, which was to take chances with what he called “the tough, machinic, strange quality of these sites” to reinvent a city dweller’s recreational landscape. The takeaway point: Keep the views, which he knew would blow away every New Yorker who will, 40 years from now, take a hybrid bus or solar-powered ferry to the place. “I said, ‘Look, whatever we do we’ve got to keep the big and green. These are views and vistas that most people in a city would have to drive three or four hours to see.’ ”
Just traveling through a landfill gets the average landscape architect pretty hyped up; geologic forces alone would never have created mounds like these. “I’m really excited about the structural aspects,” says Ellen Neises, Field Operations’ project designer for the park’s master plan. She and her husband cruised Staten Island on weekends when Field Operations was developing the competition entry, meeting with plant specialists, comparing every other park in the borough, and now in her mind’s eye she can see the transition from Fresh Kills landfill to Fresh Kills Park.
She points to an old playground, Schmul Park, and asks you to imagine a strip of small trees near an entry parking area. This tree farm, run by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, will be a staging ground for native plants—trees like eastern red cedar, black tupelo, and sweet gum—that will later be transplanted to the mounds and the lowlands around South Park.
This first patch of Fresh Kills Park, in other words, will contain the ingredients for the rest. In the nineties, Steven Handel, the ecologist from Rutgers, showed that small communities of native flora could be planted and, with some human help, could steal sunlight from invasive plant species and eventually beat them out. “We were having birds bring in seeds, not contractors,” Handel says. Field Operations adopted the idea in parts of the park, taking advantage of the mounds’ different moisture zones to seed forests and propagate plants.